Pentagon Confirms Koran Incidents

"I want to assure you that we are committed to respecting the cultural dignity of the Koran and the detainees' practice of faith," Brig. Gen. Jay W. Hood said. (By Jonathan Ernst -- Reuters)
By Josh White and Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 27, 2005

Pentagon officials said yesterday that investigators have identified five incidents of military guards and an interrogator "mishandling" the Koran at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but characterized the episodes as minor and said most occurred before specific rules on the treatment of Muslim holy items were issued.

Brig. Gen. Jay W. Hood, commander of Joint Task Force Guantanamo, said investigators have looked into 13 specific allegations of Koran desecration at the prison dating to early 2002 and have determined eight of them to be unfounded, lacking credibility or the result of accidental touching of the holy book. Of the five cases of mishandling, three were "very likely" deliberate and two were "very likely accidental," he said. But Hood declined to provide details, citing an ongoing investigation.

Hood's comments marked the first time the Pentagon has confirmed mistreatment of the Muslim book at Guantanamo Bay. Captives and some military personnel there have made claims of Koran desecration, but in a statement last week, Pentagon spokesman Lawrence T. Di Rita said the Defense Department had received no credible claims of such abuse. Nevertheless, he said, officials were reviewing the allegations.

Hood took pains to specifically deny a now-retracted report in Newsweek magazine's May 9 issue that said officials had confirmed a detainee's claim that a guard had flushed a Koran down a toilet. The White House, the Pentagon and others have linked that report to riots overseas that left 16 people dead.

The news conference came a day after the American Civil Liberties Union released summaries of memos from FBI agents at Guantanamo Bay that reported detainee allegations of Koran desecration. Hood played down the mistreatment as a vestige of Guantanamo Bay's early days and said it occurred without any systemic frequency.

He said most of the 13 cases involved accidental or inadvertent touching of the Koran by guards and interrogators -- such as someone bumping into the holy book, or one case in which an interrogator stacked two Korans on a television set.

The five confirmed cases of Koran mishandling involved four guards and one interrogator, Hood said. Six other "resolved" cases involved guards, and two involved interrogators, he said.

Hood said a soldier was reassigned after one recent accidental mishandling of the Koran, and another soldier faced an unspecified disciplinary action for an incident some time ago.

He added that there were also 15 cases in which detainees mishandled the Koran, including one who purposefully ripped pages out of his own book.

"I want to assure you that we are committed to respecting the cultural dignity of the Koran and the detainees' practice of faith," Hood said. "Every effort has been made to provide religious articles associated with the Islamic faith, accommodate prayers and religious periods, and provide culturally acceptable meals and practices."

Pentagon officials said investigators did not look into the claim that a Koran had been flushed down a toilet before the Newsweek article was published. While looking into the desecration claims after protests erupted overseas, investigators re-interviewed a detainee who had told FBI agents in July 2002 that guards had put a Koran in a toilet.

That interview, on May 14, with a prisoner the Pentagon identified this week as "an enemy combatant," led investigators to believe that the claim lacked credibility. The detainee said that he "wasn't beaten or abused, but that he had heard rumors that other detainees were," Hood said.

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